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How Japan embraced the advent of cinema

by Stephen Mansfield

Japanese cinema was different from the very start. In the days of the silent movie, recitators called benshi, took it upon themselves not only to interpret the action, but to add their own vocal and acting embellishments as self-appointed supra-dramatists.

VISIONS OF JAPANESE MODERNITY: Articulations of Cinema, Nation and Spectatorship, 1895-1925, by Aaron Gerow. University of California Press, 2010, 344 pp., $24.95 (paper)

There were other localized touches. During funeral scenes, for example, it was not uncommon for a member of staff to move stealthily through the darkened emporium lighting sticks of incense as mood enhancers.

As film critic Donald Richie has written elsewhere about the extraordinary influence of cinema in Japan in the early years of the industry here, “The nation’s culture — which means its way of accounting for, of constructing, of assuming — was still its own.”

The Japanese certainly seem to have taken to film with alacrity, to have instinctively understood the medium, though in their own inimitable way. Porous to new ideas in literature, the arts, and the transformation of its legal, political and military institutions, Japan was also remarkably receptive to cinema techniques and styles.

And it wasn’t long before the country was producing its own highly original films like Kinugasa Teinosuke’s 1926 expressionist feature, “A Page Out of Order.”

The mediums were not identical. If American cinema was perceived as a new manifestation of photography, Japanese film was understood as a new version of theater.

Aaron Gerow’s new book covers the period from 1895, one year before Edison’s Kinetoscope arrived in Kobe, to 1925, when national censorship began taking a more systematic interest in film content.

The author emphasizes the importance of the year 1910, a watershed in terms of cinematic history in Japan, the moment when film would be distinguished through definition and discourse as a separate form.

Gerow has written a formidable introduction, a demanding text that, although plumy with scholarship and academic nomenclature, helps the nonspecialist reader to situate his ideas, concur with, or reject the notions of other film historians. The author defines the early audience experience of cinema as “consuming the West without having to leave local boundaries.”

Gerow writes of the creative choices available to the Japanese director faced with having to either modernize existing traditions or traditionalize an emerging modernity. He focuses on neglected areas of film criticism, the structure of the cinema business, the audience and the period’s social-political context.

With the advance of modernization, mass culture and urbanization, the author places cinema in its social place, differentiating, for example, between bourgeois and proletariat forms of the new cinema, with particular emphasis on the Pure Film Movement.

The book focuses primarily on the role of discourse in influencing new models, which helped set a number of changes in motion, among them the disappearance of onnagata — male actors who played female roles in kabuki and whose presence in films was viewed as a theatrical convention restricting the development of Japanese cinema.

Actresses would henceforth be admitted into this more progressive medium, a star system consolidated, censorship codes introduced, the notion of the author-director established and, most pertinently, a means found for a fully and more intellectualized discourse on film.

More visceral reactions to early Japanese cinema are also aired. What the more genteel class seem to have objected to in particular was the smell, the human fug that collected inside the badly ventilated cinemas. The Asahi newspaper took particular offense, one writer describing the stench as “a kind of unclean humidity, attacking the sense of smell with tobacco smoke, the fragrance of face powder and the odor of sweat.”

The paper took their critique a step further, asserting “the movie hall represented a dangerous, crass and almost obscene form of physicality, harming not only the spirits of spectators but also their very bodies.”

Cinema was seen by the authorities as a threat to Meiji Era (1868-1912) order and propriety.

There is a humorous side to the checks and controls that would all but neuter creative cinema by the 1930s. Gerow relates how, when Edison’s film “The Kiss,” was first shown in Osaka in 1897, the police attempted to stop the film on the grounds that it was harmful to public morals. The quick-thinking benshi Hoteiken Ueda saved the film from being withdrawn by persuading the officials that in America, a kiss was the equivalent of a handshake.

A work of film connoisseurship, an effort to define film and the search for a discourse on modernity in the early formative years of Japanese cinema, this erudite work will also appeal to readers who wish to know more about the social and cultural conditions of the times.